Interview with Dr. Montgomery Jaritz
IonKraft: Plasma Technology for Recyclable Plastic Packaging with Effective Barrier Performance
In 2021 they won the RWTH Aachen Innovation Award, and are funded by the EXIST research transfer program of the German Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection, or BMWK for short:
As a spin-off of RWTH Aachen University, IonKraft brings technology from research right up to industrial application. The technology of the young spin-off was developed at the Institute for Plastics Processing, or IKV for short.
IonKraft is the team consisting of Dr. Montgomery Jaritz, Benedikt Heuer, Daniel Rau and Stefan Wilski.
We spoke with Montgomery Jaritz, who gained his very first experience as a student assistant in the field of plasma technology at the IKV during his studies at RWTH:
I was fascinated by the technology from the very beginning, so I was all the happier when Professor Christian Hopmann gave me the chance to conduct research and do my doctorate in this field myself after completing my studies. As part of my doctorate, I then worked on barrier coatings for plastics. These coatings have the potential to provide plastics with an effective barrier without impairing their recyclability. However, until now these coatings have not been chemically resistant enough to be used in packaging in the chemical industry, for example. After about four years of research, we actually succeeded in making the layers absolutely chemically stable. This laid the foundation for IonKraft and the journey began.
IonKraft uses plasma technology to make plastic packaging recyclable for barrier applications. How does this technology come about?
In plasma technology, gaseous monomers are excited together with other process gases at low pressure by microwaves to form a plasma. The monomers are fragmented in the process, and recombination processes occur. From this plasma, a layer is deposited onto a substrate in a process known as plasma polymerization, the properties of which depend to a large extent on the reactor and the process parameters. Under certain process conditions, transparent and highly dense silicon oxide gas barrier layers (SiOx) can then be produced on plastics, for example, which can seal any plastic so that it becomes as dense as glass.
Until now, multi-material containers have been used in this area. What can the coatings from IonKraft do better?
Chemical products have very high demands on their packaging. Not only must they be chemically resistant, they must also be absolutely impermeable so that no filling material can escape from the container into the environment. However, the standard plastics for plastic packaging cannot achieve this on their own. Therefore, inexpensive packaging plastics are combined with expensive barrier plastics in a container, which makes them expensive and usually non-recyclable. Our barrier coating for plastic containers enables high barrier performance at low cost without limiting the recyclability of the container. This allows many thousands of tons of plastic packaging to be made recyclable each year without sacrificing the necessary product protection.
Your coating systems can be adapted flexibly. What other advantages does this offer?
We have developed and applied for a patent for a reactor design with which large-volume containers of up to 20 liters can be coated homogeneously both from the inside and from the outside by means of plasma. There are hardly any restrictions on the size and shape of the containers to be coated. The cycle time is so short that the machines can be integrated into existing production lines for plastic containers without any problems. The entire process is also environmentally friendly due to the minimal quantities of process gas that are required.
In which user industries can your chemically resistant barrier coatings be used?
The coating is resistant to alkalis and acids and provides an effective barrier to any filling material, whether it is gases such as oxygen or chemicals such as solvents or pesticides. At the same time, the coatings have already been approved by the FDA and EFSA for foodstuffs. Basically, our coatings are suitable for all packaging in which sensitive products are to be stored and distributed. This ranges from food, pharmaceutical products and cosmetics to chemicals of all kinds.
The green tech industry is growing steadily and is considered less susceptible to crises. How will the green transformation in Germany continue to develop? Would you like to venture a personal prediction?
Plastics have great recycling potential. However, of the 150 million tons of plastics produced worldwide each year, only about six percent are recycled. The rest is incinerated, ends up in landfills or in the sea. It is hard to imagine the consequences for the environment and our health. So the green transformation in Germany is an absolute necessity. And this also applies to all other sectors, for example energy. Fortunately, awareness of this problem has risen in recent years, so public and political pressure on companies to switch to sustainable plastic solutions is steadily increasing. This pressure to innovate will definitely create change, but we still have a long way to go. We hope to be a part of this change with IonKraft.
The interview was conducted by Nives Sunara.